In memoriam: Reza Mirzaeifar, associate professor of mechanical engineering
Mirzaeifar was an enthusiastic learner across many topics, earning himself the nickname of “walking Wikipedia” in his circle of friends. He passed away Oct. 19.
Reza Mirzaeifar, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, passed away on Oct. 19. He was born Aug. 31, 1982, in Kerman, Iran. He received his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Kerman in 2004, and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Tehran Polytechnic in 2006. He traveled to the United States for his doctorate, receiving a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech in 2013. His postdoctoral work was completed at MIT in 2014, and he joined the faculty of Virginia Tech as an assistant professor that same year.
Mirzaeifar was an enthusiastic learner across many topics, earning himself the nickname of “walking Wikipedia” in his circle of friends. He was also a fan of Persian calligraphy and traditional Persian music and played the tar, a classical Persian stringed instrument resembling a guitar.
He is survived by his wife, Associate Professor Shima Shahab. The two met at the University of Kerman and were married in March 2007. After coming to Blacksburg, they often took hikes together and even collaborated on research that arose from conversations during those walks through nature.
In 2014, Mirzaeifar established his research group, the Future Materials Laboratory, whose work focused on developing new classes of materials with unprecedented mechanical properties, as well as finding solutions for resolving long-standing problems in the mechanical properties of classical materials. In this capacity, he conducted novel research into the mechanical behavior of a broad range of material at different length scales using a complementary set of computational and experimental methods.
In October 2017, he was diagnosed with a rare type of brain cancer. Despite the challenges of living with the disease, his enthusiasm increased to continue pursuing professional goals. In that same year, he received the AFOSR Young Investigator award, started his project with Oak Ridge National Lab, mentored a Ph.D. student, and published eight journal papers. Through treatment, his general health improved, and he found a new inspiration for pursuing research and academic excellence.
His research work has resulted in a diverse scholastic output with more than 70 papers in prestigious journals with high impact factors, 60 conference papers, and one book chapter, which have collectively been cited 2,122 times as of November 2022 with an h-index of 24. He had successfully received financial support from a diverse group of agencies, including the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, Office of Naval Research, Honeywell, and Association of American Railroads (AAR) through the Railway Technologies Laboratory.
In 2021, Mirzaeifar was named John R. Jones III Faculty Fellow in the Department of Mechanical Engineering by the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors, thereby acknowledging and rewarding him as a mid-career faculty member who had shown exceptional merit in research, teaching, and/or service.
Mirzaeifar also collaborated with colleagues in biomedical engineering to study brain cancer, the illness that he fought until his passing. His primary research focus had long been the stiff properties of materials, and he shifted that focus to better understand the life cycle of cancer cells following his diagnosis.
One of his co-investigators, Rafael Davalos, commented on the contribution of Mirzaeifar’s research.
“Reza had this brilliant idea to study whether chemotherapeutics altered the stiffness of brain cancer cells, which could have major implications in their metastasis,” said Davalos. “He was so passionate about his research that we were working on a proposal just weeks before his passing. He was always a pleasure to work with and in great spirits even during this battle. He will really be missed by all those who knew him.”
In addition to his research, Mirzaeifar was also a mentor to undergraduate and graduate students, as well as students who had completed their doctoral degrees.
One such student, Jonathan Charleston, worked with Mirzaeifar for five years.
“The graduate school journey can come with unique personal hardships that stand to derail the process from the very first step,” said Charleston. “In my five years as Dr. Reza's student, I was fortunate to see how he thoughtfully created an atmosphere that facilitated the growth of each student so they could face those challenges head-on. Whether academic, financial, or emotional, Dr. Reza showed he was an excellent advisor, mentor, teacher, and, most importantly, a great friend. He demonstrated the importance of pursuing goals with the highest level of quality and humility. I am thankful that I can be part of his legacy and for his impact on my life.”
Ravi Kiran Bollineni, for whom Mirzaeifar was a doctoral advisor, echoed Charleston’s comments.
“Dr. Reza is one of the kindest professors I ever met in my life. He is one of the best advisors any graduate student can have for his or her studies. He always tried to help the student in every possible way he can. His hardworking nature motivated me a lot," said Bollineni. "I enjoyed working under his guidance throughout the three years of my graduate studies. I carry his qualities of hard work and kindness while going forward in my life.”
A memorial service for Mirzaeifar was held Oct. 22, with many friends and family attending. The family wishes to express their deepest thanks to Nicholas and Rebecca des Champs Professor and Department Head Azim Eskandarian and Professor Mehdi Ahmadian, who supported them throughout Mirzaeifar’s illness and assisted with many of the memorial arrangements.
“Reza was a true and accomplished scholar, a gentle friend, a kind advisor to his students, and an exemplary citizen of our ME Department and university,” said Eskandarian. “He always had a calm and humane demeanor with a staunch sense of responsibility, dedication, and commitment to his academic duties. His science was outstanding, his character was exemplary, and his kindness was boundless. He was a gentle soul and a beloved colleague and friend. His early passing certainly broke my heart and that of our colleagues. He is sorely missed.”
Ahmadian looks back on the decade in which he worked with Mirzaeifar with fondness and admiration.
“I had the pleasure of working with Reza since he joined Virginia Tech in 2014. We collaborated on several projects together,” said Ahmadian. “He was one of the most intelligent, thoughtful, and responsible collaborators I have known. He always impressed me by his deep scientific knowledge in his area of expertise. Although he was not an experimentalist, he could always relate his scientific findings to engineering practice. His care and respect for students was exemplary, and he was certainly a favorite of my graduate students. We will dearly miss his friendship, mentorship, and professionalism.”
Expressions of sympathy may take the form of donations to the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke University.